Anatomic Terminology

To understand spinal anatomy, one needs to learn a few terms used by doctors. 

The body is divided by three imaginary planes (the sagittal, transverse, and frontal planes) as shown in the diagram. 

  • Diagram of spinal anatomy - coronal, frontal, transverse, median sagittalThe sagittal plane splits the body down the "midline, or middle, dividing left from right. 
    • Medial means closer to the midline or middle.

    • Lateral means further from the midline. 
  • The coronal or frontal plane is the division between the front and the back of the body.

    • Anterior or ventral means further forward.

    • Posterior or dorsal means further back.
  • The transverse plane divides superior part of the body (towards the top) from inferior (towards the bottom). 

    • Superior or cranial means above the center of the body.

    • Inferior or caudal means below the center of the body.

X-rays are usually viewed as lateral images (from the side) or anterior/posterior images (front to back).  CT scans and MRI scans of the body are displayed in the transverse, sagittal and coronal planes. 

These terms describing position are also used by doctors to describe the locations of nearly everything in the body.  For example, the neck is superior to the chest and the shoulder joint is lateral to the collar bone. 

Other Common Anatomical Terms

Proximal Closer to the center of the body.

Distal Further from the center of the body.


Superficial Closer to the skin.

Deep Further from the skin.


Dorsal Towards the back of the body.

Ventral Towards the front of the body.


Pronate Turn the palms up or the feet inward.

Supinate Turn the palms down or the feet outward.


Abduction* To move away from the middle of the body.

Adduction* To move toward the middle of the body.

*These two words differ by only one letter.  The third letter, "d" or "b" makes all the difference and can cause confusion.


Extension To straighten out a joint.

Flexion To bend a joint.


Dorsiflexion To bend the foot upward at the ankle.

Plantarflexion To bend the foot downward at the ankle.


Cranial Closer to the head.

Caudal Closer to the buttocks.


Foramen A hole or opening

Fossa A flat surface or a depression.

Lumen The opening of a tube (like the center of the windpipe or a blood vessel).

Prominence An area which protrudes or sticks out.

Tubercle A bump.


Go to the next page which describes the anatomy of the spine.

Go to the next chapter on symptoms.


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Last modified: 07/27/08